Global Crumbling

By David Posnett
Climate change contributed to this huge landslide on Piz Cengalo in the Swiss Alps in August 2017. YouTube Video

In August 2017, the mountain world witnessed an impressive manifestation of global warming. An entire mountainside in the Swiss Alps broke loose and crashed into the Bondasca valley. The mountain is called Piz Cengalo and is next to Piz Badile, both of fame among the world’s top rock climbers.

The crumbling of an entire mountainside is extraordinary. You might want to take a look at the live videos on YouTube, or Google “Cengalo rockslide.”

The massive landslide crashed through Val Bondasca and partially destroyed the village of Bondo, which lies at the bottom of this valley, near a major transit way from Milano to St. Moritz in the Engadin. I had visited Bondo in the summer of 2016. The highlight of my trip was a five-hour hike up Val Bondasca to the Sciora hut. That is the mountain hut where serious climbers prepare to climb Cengalo and the neighboring peaks. I stayed overnight with about 40 climbers. 

They set off on their climbs at 4 a.m., while I headed back down into the valley. I knew the area was considered a danger zone for rockslides, but I stayed on the marked pathways and avoided those trails that were marked chiuso (closed). In the wake of the recent rockslide of Aug. 23, there were eight hikers missing, later presumed dead. They, too, descended from the Sciora hut through Val Bondasca along the same path I had been on. Sections of this path are now covered with up to 40 meters of rocks.

In Bondo, television images showed a trail of destruction left by a river of mud and stone. Satellite images recorded the event, as did people in the Sciora hut and even climbers hanging from ropes on the neighboring mountain (Piz Badile). From Swiss authorities at I learned that thawing permafrost and heavy rainfall have been responsible for several fatal landslides or rockslides in recent years.

Why should we care in the Hamptons? Here, the major dangers brought on by global warming are the increased severity and frequency of hurricanes, flooding, damage to infrastructure (and to expensive homes along the beach), and disappearing salt marshes, which represent the breeding grounds for fish and shellfish. Some ignoramuses in our country even doubt that global warming is occurring or that humans have a role in it. 

In the mountains there is no doubt. Glaciers that were once tourist attractions have all but disappeared. And famous mountains, like Eiger and Matterhorn, are now crumbling. There is concern that pillars supporting mountain telecabines (tourist installations) might be in danger, and they are being carefully monitored. Lack of snow, receding glaciers, and now the danger of rockslides are all threatening tourism in a major way.

Europeans cannot understand defiant American politicians who pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement. They cannot understand people like President Trump, or his cheerleading congressman, Lee Zeldin, when they appear to support banning science from the Environmental Protection Agency and banning the very words “climate change” within the Department of Energy’s climate office.

For mountain folks, the disasters are real and all too close to home.

David Posnett, M.D., is emeritus professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan. He lives in Springs.